A ginger bug is a wild-fermented starter culture made with sugar, ginger and water. It takes about a little less than a week of daily diligence to make one, and you can use it to make probiotic, naturally bubbly soft drinks, sodas, herbal beers and tonics.
What is ginger bug?
Ginger bug is a slurry of fresh ginger, sugar and water that has been allowed to ferment until bubbly and foamy. Brewers use the bug to brew probiotic tonics and drinks like root beer, ginger beer or probiotic lemonade.
Like sourdough starter, ginger bug is a starter culture that is rich in wild bacteria and yeast. These starters kickstart the fermentation process for other fermented foods. Sourdough starters provide the bacteria and yeast to make bread. Kombucha mothers make kombucha tea. And ginger bugs make homemade, naturally fermented sodas.
How does it work?
When you mix ginger and sugar together with water and let it sit, the wild bacteria and native yeasts in your kitchen and on the ginger itself begin to proliferate and grow. These wild microorganisms eat the sugar in your bug, and produce carbon dioxide as a result.
When mixed with a sweetened herbal tea, fruit juice or other base, the microorganisms in the ginger bug consume the sugar in the tea or juice. As they do, they reproduce and emit carbon dioxide that gives homemade soft drinks their bubbles.
What Are The Benefits of Ginger Bug
Since ginger bugs are fermented foods, they’re naturally rich in probiotics, namely lactobacillus bacteria and wild yeasts. These organisms help to support metabolic and digestive health as well as the immune system.
Ginger is a wildly popular culinary herb, and it also has medicinal properties. Herbalists use ginger to support blood sugar regulation, ease nausea and support digestion (3). And ginger shows promise in easing morning sickness (4) and migraine (5).
So while brews made with ginger bug are still treats, they’re far better for you than regular soda.
Ginger Bug vs Ginger Beer Plant
Don’t confuse ginger bug and ginger beer plant. While they’re both rich in probiotics and used to make natural sodas, they’re two different things.
Ginger bugs are wild-fermented starter cultures that rely on the native yeast and bacteria of your kitchen to become bubbly.
By contrast, ginger beer plants are a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) very similar to water kefir and made primarily of the yeast Saccharomyces pyriformis and bacteria like Brevibacterium vermiforme (1). That SCOBY produces tiny, gelatinous crystals that you feed sugar water, lemon and ginger.
You can make a ginger bug at home, but you must purchase a ginger beer plant. Or, at the very least, know someone who brews it.
- Dice the ginger instead of grating it. While many recipes call for grated ginger, cubed or diced ginger works just as well and it’s easier to strain, too.
- Use sugar or another caloric sweetener. The yeast and bacteria that make your bug bubble need a sugar to help them grow. Sugar is the most common choice, but you can also use honey, maple syrup, palm sugar or any other caloric sweetener. Avoid non-caloric sweeteners like stevia.
- Turmeric and galangal work well too. You can substitute both fresh turmeric and fresh galangal in place of the ginger, for variety. Or use a combination.
- Use organic ginger. Conventionally grown ginger is often irradiated, which may impact its ability to form a thriving bug (2). Irradiation is disallowed in organic production, so organic ginger works best.
- Use chlorine-free water. Chlorine in tap water can interfere with bacterial and yeast production, so choose filtered water or spring water.
- Seal your jar tightly for best yeast production. While it may seem counter-intuitive since other fermented drinks, like kombucha, often use an open container, your ginger bug does best in a sealed container like a Fido jar.
How to Make Ginger Bug
Making a ginger bug is simple. You’ll need organic, unpeeled fresh ginger, sugar or another caloric sweetener and water. It takes about 5 to 7 days to make a ginger bug, and may take less time in warm climates and less in cool climates.
The first day, you’ll mix water with sugar and ginger and allow it to culture in a sealed jar for 24 hours. Then, every day for 4 to 6 days afterwards, you’ll need to add a small amount of fresh ginger and sugar to the bug.
If your ginger bug begins to foam and bubble or if it smells yeasty like bread or beer, it’s ready to use. And you can use it right away or transfer it to a fridge up to 1 week.
Ginger Bug Recipe
To Start the Bug
- 2 cups water
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 ounce fresh ginger diced
To Feed the Bug
- 5 teaspoons sugar
- 2 ½ ounces fresh ginger diced
To Use the Bug
- 8 cups fruit juice or sweetened herbal tea
Preparing the Bug
- Warm the water in a saucepan over medium heat, and stir in the sugar until it dissolves fully. Cool the sugar water to room temperature.
- Drop the ginger into a pint-sized jar, and then cover it with the sugar water. Seal the jar, and let it culture at room temperature for one day.
Feeding the Bug
- The next day, and each day for 5 days, stir 1 teaspoon sugar and ½ ounce ginger into the jar, and then close the jar tightly. Between 3 and 5 days, you should start to see bubbles forming, and your bug should smell yeasty and gingery. When you see bubbles, your bug is ready to use.
Using the Bug
- To use the bug, strain ½ cup of the liquid and mix it with 7 ½ cups liquid such as fruit juice or sweetened herbal tea, bottle and ferment up to 3 days.
How to Use Ginger Bug
To make soda from your ginger bug, strain about ½ cup liquid from your jar and stir it into 7 ½ cups sweetened herbal tea or fruit juice. Pour the the tea or juice into flip-top bottles.
Remember to leave ½ to 1-inch head space. And then let your homemade soda culture at room temperature up to 3 days. Then, transfer the bottles to the fridge and enjoy with in a few months.
It’s important to use fruit juice or sweetened herbal tea when you make homemade, naturally fermented sodas. The bacteria and yeast in your bug thrive on sugar. Without it, your soda and beers won’t culture.
Citations and References
1) Wright, John. (2011) How to Make Real Ginger Beer. The Guardian.
2) Katz, Sandor. (2012) The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing.
3) Fleming, T. (ed) (2000) The Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicine. Medical Economics Company.
4) Smith, C., Crowther, C., Wilson, K., Hotham, N., McMillian, V. (2004, Apr) A randomized controlled trial of ginger to treat nausea and vomiting in pregnancy. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 103(4), 639-645.
5) Maghbooli, M., Golipour, F., Edfandabadi, A.M., Yousefi, M. (2013, May 9) Comparison Between the Efficacy of Ginger and Sumatriptan in the Ablative Treatment of the Common Migraine. Phytotherapy Research, 8(3), 412-415.